Christchurch City Council
As the 15th Rugby League World Cup approaches, Canterbury legend Frank Endacott – who coached New Zealand at the 1995 and 2000 tournaments – shares his World Cup memories.
After highly successful tenures at the helm of the Canterbury provincial side and the Junior Kiwis, Frank Endacott succeeded Howie Tamati as New Zealand’s national coach in 1994.
The Kiwis’ schedule that year consisted solely of a two-Test tour of Papua New Guinea at the end of the year, but the following season Endacott had to couple the Auckland Warriors reserve grade coaching duties with the most hectic international program in the country’s history.
A win and a disappointing draw against the touring French side, then a 3-0 series defeat to an Australian outfit decimated by the unavailability of Super League-aligned players, was not an ideal build-up for the 1995 Centenary World Cup staged in England.
Nevertheless, the Kiwis were rated as the main challengers to traditional heavyweights Australia and England – but their bid to reach the knockout phase of the tournament was almost over before it began, narrowly avoiding one of the biggest upsets of all time courtesy of a 25-24 win over Tonga.
“We struggled our way through to the semi-finals – we gave everyone a heart attack, including myself,” Endacott recalls.
Endacott had made a bold call by dumping incumbent captain Gary Freeman in favour of uncapped teenage halfback Stacey Jones for the Warrington-hosted opener, while brilliant Manly fullback Matthew Ridge was installed as skipper.
Tonga was captained by veteran hooker Duane Mann, who ironically was Endacott’s Kiwis captain in PNG, before being deposed at club and Test level by young Wellington rake Syd Eru; Mann consequently spent most of ’95 playing in Endacott’s reserve grade team at the Warriors.
But after fighting their way to a 12-6 lead at halftime, the Kiwis were caught on the back foot by a fired-up Tongan side, who scored three unanswered tries to open up a shock 24-12 lead – and the vocal Warrington fans were making life difficult for the overwhelming favourites.
“When you understand England and their grounds – that was played at a famous Warrington ground called Wilderspool, and (the crowd) always go for the underdog,” Endacott says.
“Tonga were the underdog.
“When a crowd gets on top of you like that and the little things go against you, it can turn into a real arm-wrestle.
“With seven minutes to go we were 12 points down. Someone was getting treated for an injury, and I sent the message down to (non-playing reserve) Gary Freeman on the sideline to go and tell Matthew Ridge ‘hey, we need to do this, this and this’.
“He looked up and said to Gary, ‘tell Frank not to worry, this is all under control’.
“I looked at Gary Kemble, my assistant, and I just shook my head. I thought, ‘I hope he’s right!’”
Ridge later revealed in his autobiography that he could not hear the coach’s instructions relayed by Freeman due to the deafening crowd noise.
“From that point, we got a penalty and kicked the ball out. I made two subs – Henry Paul and HItro Okesene I think it was – and they made some real impact.”
Okesene made a much-needed breakthrough for the Kiwis when he powered over out wide, before Richie Blackmore scored his second try in the opposite corner. The mercurial Ridge nailed both difficult conversions to level the scores – but the ultra-confident No.1 was not content for New Zealand to finish the match with a share of the spoils.
“We had about two minutes left on the clock and we were even, we took the ball in for the field goal but there were two Tongan players five metres offside – they were that far offside it was unbelievable,” Endacott says.
“They caught Matthew on his wrong foot, but he stepped to the left and kicked it over with his left foot, gave us the one-point win. We only had to survive a couple of tackles to win the game, and we got out of hit.”
Ridge’s heroics saved Endacott and the Kiwis from what would have been a major embarrassment, and likely early exit from the World Cup.
The black-and-whites subdued Papua New Guinea 22-6 in their remaining pool match to book a semi-final date with Australia – a match destined to go down in international rugby league folklore.
Meanwhile, the Kiwis will take on a much more high-profile Tonga line-up in Hamilton in their last pool match next month, a grudge match that could decide which nation finishes atop Group B.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of Frank’s World Cup Memories, which recalls that epic Kiwis-Kangaroos semi-final from the 1995 tournament.